WILDWOOD (N.J) - The Pemberton Township High School boys basketball team left a lot of questions to be answered after a heartbreaking conclusion to its 2022 campaign.
The senior-laden Hornets suffered a stunning loss to 10th-seeded Cherry Hill West in the South Jersey Group 3 quarterfinals and graduated all five starters.
Pemberton returned a host of players, but with limited experience, and were unsure of how familiar faces would adjust to larger roles. The team would also need new contributors to emerge to be successful.
The result so far has been the program's best start since 2020.
The Hornets, ranked 15th in the latest South Jersey Sports Zone Top 15 rankings, held off Ocean City, 53-49, in the Boardwalk Classic Bill Osborn Memorial Bracket semifinals at the Wildwood Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon.
The Hornets improved their record to 6-0 and will play No. 5 Bishop Eustace in the Bill Osborn Memorial Bracket final on Wednesday.
"It's not new faces, but it's a lot of different people bringing a different thing," senior Kazi Fontaine said. "We have to come together and figure out what that is. It's just having fun. We all know what we have to do."
Fontaine recorded 13 points, 13 rebounds, seven steals, five assists, and went 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the second half in the victory.
Pemberton's early-season success has stemmed from establishing a defensive identity and infusing a flavor of balance on offense.
"We definitely play pretty aggressive on defense," coach Tim Collura said. "We've limited a lot of people in terms of rebounding and just getting a lot of contributions from different guys. The other night we had 10 guys score. We're trying to rotate a little bit more. We have a lot of young guys that sort of need to get in situations."
Adrian Lemons, Jr. powered the undefeated Hornets with 14 points including a pair of three-pointers made. He scored nine in the first half.
"Just got to come out hot," Lemons, Jr. said. "Just got to lock in in warmups and get your shot right. I'm relied on as a shooter so I got to make sure it's on just to give the team a kickstart."
The junior benefited from leagues and showcases in the offseason, and has emerged as an offensive catalyst for Pemberton. Lemons, Jr. leads the team with a scoring average of 14.3 points per game.
"Just putting in the work all summer and fall with the team," Lemons, Jr. said of his rapid development. "Even on varsity last year, I still practiced with the older guys, so just taking it all in, knowing I was going to have to play a big role this year."
Senior guards Jalen Clarke, Dekari Harrell and Fontaine are the only returning players that charted points in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs last season. The trio only combined for 19 points over two postseason contests.
Clark also didn't play against Ocean City on Tuesday.
The Hornets ability to alleviate absences and work collectively as a team has been illustrated by those seniors' uptick in production.
"I feel like it's just another year," Fontaine said. "Got to come out, compete, do what you got to do. Just come out and have fun.
"I feel like the players from last year were a big inspiration on me. They showed me how to make sure everybody's focused. I feel like I took that from last year and brought it here this year so we could do what we go to do."
Senior Elijah Zapata-Smalls contributed nine points and Harrell added seven for the Hornets.
The Red Raiders were powered by Dylan Schlatter's game-high 15 points. Omero Chevere and Sean Sakers added 11 each.
Pemberton's sixth consecutive win came on the heels of a 48-45 come-from-behind victory over Burlington City last Thursday. The Hornets trailed by 10 points at intermission and outscored the Blue Devils 30-17 over the final two quarters.
Collura's squad also earned a statement win over Westampton Tech, and overcame early deficits to upend Haddon Heights and Bordentown. Lemons, Jr. drained a buzzer-beater to knock off the Scotties. The Hornets also earned a gutsy win against Doane Academy in overtime.
Pemberton has developed a routine of finishing games in dramatic fashion.
"We've just been pretty fortunate," Collura said. "We definitely don't want to continue to play that way. We want to be able to play a cleaner game earlier and take care of things so we're not in those late-game situations. I do think being in close games, and fortunately winning, will pay dividends down the stretch."